Boys Will Be Boys?

This is more of a question than a statement. As mother to a newly crowned six year old, this popular refrain weighs heavily on my mind. I had never given the notion that “boys will be boys” much credence. It’s a sentiment I’d often hear from parents observing their own boys pushing or shoving each other. At the time, my three year old son was still enveloped within my protective circle and I just didn’t get it.

Over the next three years, I’ve watched my son transform from a sweet, active toddler to my very own rambunctious boy who seems to enjoy physically aggressive play with his friends.

The active part I completely understand. He has always been active. So active, that at 18 months old, my husband and I would instruct him to run laps around our ottoman as we counted and congratulated him with each lap completed. This daily lap running was necessary. For him and for us.

Boys need to run…that much is clear.

However, when it comes to aggression and roughhousing, what is acceptable? I see this all the time now amongst my son and his friends. They are often engaged in elbowing, pushing, and sometimes end up in a ball of laughter and tackles on the floor. It’s hard for me to watch. It makes me uncomfortable.

I feel they are always teetering on the edge of hurting each other when they engage in this type of play.

While I don’t want to be known as the “helicopter” type parent who shuts down “boy” play the minute it starts, I also don’t want to turn a blind eye. It is clear to me that boundaries can easily be crossed. They are at an age when they are testing the waters and thus crave and desire our support and guidance.

To simply shrug off aggressive behavior as “boys will be boys”, does a disservice to our boys at this tender age.

On the other hand, I also realize that boys need space and opportunity to work through social interactions with their peers and this may include the occasional roughhousing. My dilemma lies in how to not hover but rather, to be a keen observer and intervene if necessary.

The reality is, I cannot always be there. My son is in school now and must rely on himself and the guidance of his teacher. What my husband and I can do is talk to our son. We talk constantly to him about respect and safety. We remind him that a friend should not intentionally hurt him and that he should not hurt his friends. We try our best to instill him with the confidence to disengage in play that makes him uncomfortable.

I can only imagine that while roughhousing, some of this may get lost in translation.

So while I can clearly see the truth in “boys will be boys”, I still believe it is up to us guide them and help them channel their abundant energy in positive ways. Sports, riding bikes, and free play time at the park are great ways to focus and release some of that energy.

In the meantime, I can accept that a wrestling match may break out amongst friends from time to time. My son certainly seems intent on honing his wrestling skills with my husband. Just last night he was begging, “Dad, come on, let’s hustle”. He meant wrestle.

We didn’t correct him because in this era of his entrance into full fledged boyhood at warp like speed, we think it’s the cutest thing ever.

Please, tell me, what do you think of this type of boy play? How do you feel about the notion, boys will be boys?

27 Responses to Boys Will Be Boys?
  1. Sorta Southern Single Mom
    March 14, 2011 | 3:40 am

    I think, like most things, it has it's place. Ironically, in my house, it's The Girl that's more physical in terms of rough-housing… The Boy is really good about getting outside to shoot hoops or run around to blow off steam. I think there needs to be parameters (ie if you are going to play like that, go to the playroom and I don't want to hear it when someone gets hurt, stay away from the furniture) but I also think that teaching and enforcing manners and being a gentleman goes along way to balancing it out- kind of helps them to create their own boundaries.

  2. Jessica
    March 14, 2011 | 4:08 am

    I was, until the past few months, in denial that I could keep my boys sweet and gentle. At 3.5 my son is just starting to move into more of the little boy type of play and he is trying to bring his little brother along with him. I would love to say I can keep him from all of the aggressive horse play but as you talk about here, that is not realistic. I know I will not be one of those moms to just laugh it off as they roll around and destroy things, I hope to teach them self-control and respect and kindness but I have a feeling I am in for lots of wrestling match break-ups .

  3. angela
    March 14, 2011 | 6:16 am

    That's a tough one! I never thought there was such an innate difference until I had my kids; little D is much, much more physical than A ever was/is. I hope that I can help him channel that energy appropriately (I love the running laps idea) and otherwise emphasize the safe aspect???

  4. Cheryl D.
    March 14, 2011 | 7:08 am

    They don't outgrow it either! I remember in college at the fraternity parties. The "boys" liked to dogpile–they would jump on top of each other into a big heap. I think they finally stopped this tradition when a guy on the bottom broke an ankle bone.

  5. Adam Rogers
    March 14, 2011 | 8:50 am

    Here is what my two cents are. if all of the boys are rough housing together, and everyone is laughing and having a good time. Then we as aprents should worry about it in the least. If one of the kids is upset, and doesn't want to be doing it, now there's a problem. But prepared for the accidentable injury, but I believe that's part of growing up and learning as a little boy, and testing limits.

  6. Lauralee Moss
    March 14, 2011 | 9:17 am

    I really wonder about this. As a teacher (and mother to a son and daughter) I have always realized differences in male/female behavior. Why does it exist? Is it because of societal expectations or is it different muscle build and hormones? I have no idea, but I do have some ways I handle it.

    My son may not hurt others, but he can rough house all he wants. He loves to wrestle daddy, but sister doesn't like it, so he knows to leave her alone. Kids at school don't like it either, so we leave them alone too. I try to give sensible boundaries without stopping him from exerting energy, which is absolutely loves.

  7. Keith
    March 14, 2011 | 9:48 am

    As the father of three sons now in their mid twenties, there is no doubt – boys will be boys. I think in general, boys have enormous amounts of energy that has to go somewhere. The best outlet is sports, my sons were involved first in hockey then predominately soccer and basketball.
    Sports can provide a healthy channel for that energy while teaching them discipline, perseverance, working with others, handling peer pressure and many other valuable life skills.

  8. parenting ad absurdum
    March 14, 2011 | 10:06 am

    My boys (3 and 5) engage in the craziest sort of rough play – and someone gets hurt every 30 seconds or so. As an only child who spent most of her time in the corner with a book, it's so totally foreign to me…but there really does seem to be something about boy energy that needs that sort of outlet! Right now, we're trying to find a martial art to channel it through…

  9. KrellPW
    March 14, 2011 | 10:08 am

    As the father of a 7yo boy, I tend to align w/Adam. As long as the group is all enjoying it and they're not taking unnecessary risks (ie: climbing to and leaping from the top of the 12 ft slide, things of that nature), then let them play on. I feel like my roll as parent at that point is to observe and simply point out the unforseen/ignored potential dangers (pointy corners on furniture, or the brick hearth to the fireplace). Also to ensure that games like that remain bodies only. The instant someone picks up a stick on the playground and yells, "Let's all be Jedi's with light sabers," I step in and redirect.

    There are going to be bumps, bruises, scrapes along the way. I tend to cluster this sort of activity into the acceptable risk category of parenting.

    If at any point that roughhouse play gets targeted on an individual and starts to look like bullying, then it's time for parents to intervene.

    Also, consider enrolling them into a martial arts class. That's a great environment where kids can learn to be physical, test their strength and physical abilities in a structured environment. My boy has been taking karate twice a week for close to a year now and because he has that outlet and understands that that's the place where he can really test himself, he's at least less likely to initiate rough house play with his friends. Of course if a group starts it, he won't avoid the rough and tumble, but he knows the things he's learning in the dojo stay in the dojo.

  10. Laura@OutnumberedMom
    March 14, 2011 | 10:33 am

    This mother of FOUR boys addresses this in her book! Boys WILL be boys no matter what, to some extent. I teach high school and even at that age, the guys can't pass each other without tapping, shoving, popping each other.

    Recognizing their need for physicality is half the battle — and providing acceptable outlets for it. And shaping positive activity at home while talking about unacceptable activity is important. If you have more than one boy at home, it's easy to see this play out.

    I think a basic concept of respect – for oneself, for others and for authority – lays the foundation for a boy's sense of boundaries, which he needs.

    I never like the use of "boys will be boys" as an excuse for hurtful behavior, but I can't deny they're different than girls!

  11. flyrish
    March 14, 2011 | 11:36 am

    This post really speaks to me as my 26-month-old is naturally aggressive and loves to roughhouse. My husband and I are pretty mellow, so it's been a lot to get used to. He hurts me on a regular basis, mostly accidentally, but it's definitely a challenge to get him to understand his strength. We work on it every day. He seems to be a very stereotypical boy, which I find fascinating, since like you, I didn't think much of the whole "boys will be boys" thing.

  12. Liz
    March 14, 2011 | 11:48 am

    I realize I'm a girl mama, but I recently had an experience in the ped's waiting room that pertained to this very topic.

    I completely agree with boys being more physical in nature and "playing" differently than girls. But I do think there is a time and place for everything, and that *some* boy parents opt to take the "boys will be boys" approach as more of an excuse than anything.

    Never before have I seen boys actually chasing and screaming at each other in a doctors' waiting room! Repeatedly. And coloring on the walls. And the 3 boys – who were all from different families – did this repeatedly without any parent jumping in and making their kid stop.

    So, I get that boys are more physical, but parent can't use that an excuse for rowdy behavior. Regardless of gender, parents still need to parent and teach their kids there is a place and time for everything.

  13. fathernorest
    March 14, 2011 | 12:44 pm

    My four children range from 1yo to 18yo, three of them boys. I have found that boys will play rough and wrestle. As parents, we must teach the children boundaries and how to extract themselves if the boundaries are crossed.
    Just this Dad's opinion.

  14. Katie Hurley, LCSW
    March 14, 2011 | 2:12 pm

    Boys do need to run! I tend to agree that it's a hard line to define. However, I think proper guidance is very necessary. As Liz pointed out, there is a time and a place for everything. And boys need to learn when to stop. Guidance re: how to know if someone isn't enjoying this type of play anymore is crucial so that it doesn't go top far. Great post on a hard topic.

  15. Crystal
    March 14, 2011 | 2:41 pm

    hahaha…I laugh because I have 4 boys. My oldest is 12 and my youngest is 2. From the oldest to the youngest, they are all active, rambunctious, rough and tumble!! Boys are an entirely different creature than girls. THey need to run, to jump, to tackle, to bike. You name it…they are going to wrestle it! And it's ok!! It's ok for boys to be boys…that's how they were made.

  16. Paula @ Simply Sandwich
    March 14, 2011 | 3:16 pm

    Coming from a home with all girls I had a lot to learn about my son's active play routines! I echo Liz's comments and think that boys should be guided to make decisions and choices regarding their play instead of just given an "all-boy" pass.

  17. SmartBear
    March 14, 2011 | 5:57 pm

    What a great post and topic! I too am not fond of this saying. That being said…I think it's used a lot for aggressive/cruel behavior instead of aggressive play. Boys do have a very normal developmental tendency toward aggressive play. They play out good guys vs. bad guys and they get physical. I think the difference between what is developmentally normal and what is aggression is determined by how this is nurtured. At home, we play pretend, we karate chop balloons, we protect the castle, the police car chases the bad guys, etc. We never encourage violence and we encourage empathy. When kids understand feelings, they are better able to gauge how their actions affect others.

  18. Katherine
    March 14, 2011 | 8:00 pm

    I used to think that all stereotypical gender play was purely social, but I do think that there is something genetically ingrained in our boys for them to be, well, boys. My boys are rough and dirty and loud, despite my best attempts. I definitely think that setting limits is needed, but many times, my boys are purely boys.

  19. Galit Breen
    March 14, 2011 | 11:01 pm

    Oh, I so love the "hustle," and that you didn't correct him and this conversation! As with everything else, balance yes? Great post as always, Melissa!

  20. Lexie Loo & Dylan Too
    March 15, 2011 | 7:36 am

    I agree with what you wrote. I do allow my son to act like a typical boy with his friends, but I reel them in if I notice things are getting too rough. I believe that boys should be allowed to engage in boy behavior, but I draw the line at aggressive play. My son knows what we expect from him, and what's appropriate, but at times, I do have to remind him.

  21. The Empress
    March 15, 2011 | 11:13 am

    What an important post.

    While I don't believe in boys will be boys, I do believe in the presence of testosterone and not estrogen.

    It's what made these guys grow penises in the womb, and not stay vaginas.

    People, I wish, would understand what that is like.

    I heard an endocrinologist on NPR say that at age 15, males have more testosterone in their bodies then they will evER have in their life again.

    I think of this often, and of what I feel like when I've had to do steroid bursts for asthma, and it helps me in understanding my 14 and 15 yr old sons.

    Biology, it's all biology.

  22. Lady Jennie
    March 15, 2011 | 1:06 pm

    Oh, hustle IS cute. My boys both play like boys and I really and truly am not bothered by it. I only blow the whistle when it gets too loud or just seems too rough. But I usually try to let them go to town with it.

  23. 30ish Mama
    March 15, 2011 | 8:06 pm

    While I don't have any mommy experience with boys I can see that they are definitely more physical and sometimes more aggressive than girls. But I am still uncomfortable with using "boys will be boys" as the default excuse for bad behavior. Bad behavior is simply unacceptable regardless of gender.

  24. Melissa (Confessions of a Dr. Mom)
    March 16, 2011 | 9:10 am

    Oh how I love all the comments here! One thing is for certain…boys are amazing, aren't they?

    I really love the dads' input here too. It makes sense. If the boys are having fun and not hurting each other, it is probably okay but that boys need to understand and learn respect and self control. Tough line to tread, no doubt, but with our guidance…it can be done :)

  25. adriel, from the mommyhood memos
    March 17, 2011 | 4:26 am

    Ug, I can totally relate to this topic already! Can't believe what a "boy" my boy is. Ryan and I laugh about it all the time – Levi just charges around the place, grunting, running, falling, etc etc. Nothing makes him more happy than wrestling with dad (and mom when I'm game). I love that about him, but it also scares me sometimes too. I hate the thought of my little man getting hurt :( but I know that's a part of life and growing up and my responsibility is to both protect him AND give him freedom (as age appropriate). oh, and to be there to give hugs when he is hurt!!

  26. JDaniel4's Mom
    March 17, 2011 | 6:09 am

    JDaniel and one of his friends wrestle. He only wrestles with one. They have learned to tell each other to stop when it feel too rough.

  27. Betsy at Zen-Mama
    March 24, 2011 | 4:42 pm

    I love this post. I've wanted to comment since you wrote it…but I've been busy with my own boys and visiting boys as well.

    I've been working on a post about boys based on some research by Leonard Sax. He has written several books about gender differences. It's a great book if you haven't read it yet. He's a doctor who has helped his patients and their parents. It has really helped me as a teacher (and a parent!!).